This afternoon, the government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill was formally presented to Parliament. It forms the heart of the government's reform ambitions for the sector and contains plans on a range of issues, from employer engagement to government powers when it comes to institutions that are struggling or are seen to be failing to meet “local need”.
It also covers the new local improvement plans, the functions of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, and changes to previous legislation on higher education and lifelong learning.
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What the bill says
On local skills improvement plans
According to the bill, a “local skills improvement plan”, is a plan that “is developed by an employer representative body for the specified area, draws on the views of employers operating within the specified area, and any other evidence, to summarise the skills, capabilities or expertise that are, or may in the future be, required in the specified area”.
It “identifies actions that relevant providers can take with regard to any post-16 technical education or training that they provide so as to address the requirements mentioned”.
The bill states that where there is no approved local skills improvement plan, providers must cooperate with the employer representative body for that area “for the purposes of assisting the body to develop a local skills improvement plan for submission to the secretary of state for approval and publication”.
If there is an approved plan, providers must cooperate with the employer representative body to assist it to keep the plan under review and, where appropriate, develop a replacement plan for submission to the education secretary for approval and publication.
They should also have regard to the plan so far as it is relevant to any decision that the relevant provider is making “in relation to the provision of post-16 technical education or training that may be relevant to the skills, capabilities or expertise that are or may, in the future, be required in the area”.
A more central role for employers was set out in the government’s Skills for Jobs White Paper and this gives them those powers.
On funding arrangements with post-16 education or training providers
The education secretary may, by regulations, make provision to keep a list of “relevant providers in respect of relevant education or training, who meet conditions specified in the regulations for being on the list in respect of that education or training”.
If the education secretary makes regulations for the keeping of a list, a funding authority must not enter into relevant funding arrangements with a relevant provider unless the provider is on the list in respect of the training to which the funding arrangements relate, and this includes provision allowing the funding authority to terminate the funding arrangements if the relevant provider ceases to be on the list.
It must also not enter into relevant funding arrangements with a post-16 education or training provider unless that arrangement can be terminated if the providers enters into a relevant sub-contract in breach of prohibition from doing so, and if that provider enters into a relevant sub-contract with a provider who is not on the list in respect of the education or training to which the relevant sub-contract relates.
The bill says the education secretary may amend, add, vary or remove a category of what is seen as relevant education or training, and a condition may be specified in the subsection on the list of providers “where the secretary of state considers that specifying the condition in relation to a relevant provider may assist in preventing, or mitigating the adverse effects of, a disorderly cessation in the provision of education or training by the relevant provider”.
The conditions include the relevant provider having a student support plan, having insurance cover, that persons having general control and management of the relevant provider are fit and proper persons to be involved in that activity, and those relating to the relevant provider taking action specified in directions given by the education secretary.
Not meeting local need
For many in the sector, this section of the bill is the most eagerly anticipated. It gives the education secretary further powers to intervene and get governing bodies to “transfer” properties and liabilities – in other words, merge – where colleges “fail”, although consent of the merger partner is required.
The bill amends the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to include “that the education or training provided by the institution did not, or does not, adequately meet local needs” as one of the factors that allow for intervention from the education secretary.
The education secretary must take into account any approved local skills improvement plan that applied to the institution when the education or training was provided, it adds.
It also adds to the directions that may be given to a governing body to include a direction requiring it “to transfer property, rights or liabilities specified in the direction, and take any other steps specified in the direction in connection with the transfer in relation to property, rights or liabilities so specified”. The governing body must, unless otherwise directed by the education secretary, do so on the dissolution date.
A direction requiring the transfer of property, rights or liabilities to a person specified in the direction “may only be given with the consent of the person so specified”, and before giving a direction for the transfer of property, rights or liabilities, the education secretary must consult the Competition and Markets Authority.
“The secretary of state may give financial assistance (by way of grant, loan, guarantee or any other form) to any person in connection with the giving of a direction under this section”.
On the functions of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education
The bill sets out changes to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act – including an addition stating that the institute must keep under review “education and training within the institute’s remit, and the effect that the exercise of the institute’s functions has had, or might have, on the range and availability of that education and training”.
The changes to the act include that the institute may, “if it considers it appropriate, approve a technical education qualification under this section in respect of one or more published occupations”. However, it may approve a qualification under this section if certain conditions, set out in the bill, are met.
“The institute must maintain arrangements for reviewing approved technical education qualifications at regular intervals with a view to determining, for each qualification, whether it should continue to be approved, it should be revised or approval should be withdrawn.”
On initial teacher training in further education
The government has long spoken about the importance of high-quality further education – and legislation around initial teacher training is seen as a way to ensure this.
The bill says the education secretary may make regulations “for the purpose of securing or improving the quality of courses of initial teacher training for further education” provided in England.
Regulations may, the bill goes on to say, make provision “for and in connection with” accrediting an institution as a provider of specified courses, accrediting specified ITT(FE) courses, prohibiting the provision of specified ITT(FE) courses by an institution, setting conditions that must be complied with by an institution, and requiring the governing body and others to have regard to guidance issued by the education secretary or give them specified information about the courses provided and the individuals on them.
On the powers of the Office for Students (OfS)
The bill sets out changes to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to state that the factors that may be taken into account for the purposes of an assessment of the quality of higher education include the student outcomes of an institution “and these may be measured by any means that the OfS considers appropriate”.